A shameful witch hunt against teachers is underway, a full-blown hysteria being fanned by the media working hand in hand with politicians. In one of the crudest efforts to manipulate public opinion, as Juan Gonzalez reported, Mayor Bloomberg solicited local media to obtain the teachers’ ratings under Freedom of Information laws and publicize them.
As detailed in a union official’s recent blog entry about a teacher hounded about her rating, the attacks on teachers are quite personally vicious. The vituperation recalls not so much the McCarthy hearings as the Salem Witch Trials. The attacks have a venom generally reserved for oppressed minorities. When women are accused of doing harm to children, there is often a sexual subtext to the charges. So it is worth pondering that the New York media have bombarded the public with exposés about child molestation in schools while the controversy about the publishing of teacher ratings has been percolating.
Teaching is still “women’s work.” The overwhelming majority of people who work in schools are female. They are mostly an apolitical group who go into the occupation because they love children or they studied in college the subject matters they teach. Like most people, they just want to do their jobs as well they can. For teachers this has meant closing the classroom doors, literally and figuratively.
Teachers have been an easy target, and so, alas, have been the teachers’ unions. Though they are cast as shrewd and powerful, nationally both teachers’ unions are quite disoriented about how to respond to the assault on them and unwilling to mobilize their members. Used to lobbying and cutting deals with friendly politicians, teacher union officials mostly don’t understand what’s happening.
As I explain elsewhere, teachers’ unions are the main obstacle to creating a new kind of schooling, one that is like a shopping mall . . . or a “retail outlet” as a prospectus to investors phrased the “new mindset.” The new economy, it’s been decided for us, requires a new kind of educational system, one controlled by corporate chieftains that trains workers to compete against one another throughout the world for low-wage jobs. As Rahm Emanuel’s off-hand comments about the bottom 25% of Chicago students illustrate, the rhetoric of equal educational opportunity used to defend standardized testing to judge students and teachers is pure propaganda.
But how should we deal with this hysteria being stirred up? The New York City teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), decried the ratings and attempted to suppress their publication. Instead, it should have launched a public campaign to discredit the tests. But UFT officials couldn’t do this because . . . the state union, which UFT officials control, signed off on allowing 40% of teachers’ evaluations to be based on their students’ progress on standardized tests and applauded it as a national model. The union’s own poll, however, showed that a vast majority of parents believe there is too much emphasis on state testing in public schools.
In contrast to UFT, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has produced a remarkable document describing a vision for schooling that is truly equitable and high-quality. The plan addresses, head-on, the historic inequality in education and refuses to compromise on quality. The CTU’s new leaders have also been battling school closings and privatization with parents and students as allies.
In Los Angeles, a divided union leadership has had a divided strategy. Like the UFT, union leaders tried to block publication of the teachers’ ratings. As in NYC, they failed — and teachers were hounded. (One teacher’s suicide has been linked to publication of his test scores.) Again, as in NYC, the union is still relying on legal challenges and contractual agreements to stem attacks on schools. But as in Chicago, elements of the union leadership are trying to inform parents and the public about the harmful effects of standardized testing and organizing with parents and community to block school closings.
The opposition that Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee have expressed to publishing teachers’ ratings — but not to the testing — has been described, accurately I think, as a “good cop/bad cop” strategy. On the one hand, this development signals a success in defending the dignity of teachers as workers and human beings. The media’s teacher-bashing in its present form is likely to diminish. On the other hand, new weapons of mass destruction are being launched against public education. Instead of teachers as a group being blamed for children’s lack of achievement, only the “bad teachers” are going to be targeted. And who are the “bad teachers” in this new campaign? Those who oppose what’s supposed to be right for kids, the use of standardized testing, charter schools, privatization — and destruction of teachers’ unions. Hollywood will once again enter the fray of school politics, with a new propaganda vehicle, Won’t Back Down, an action film, funded by the same right-wing think tank that produced Waiting for Superman. This time Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal will carry the message that good teachers don’t need or want unions or any of those “selfish” (so un-mother-like!) desires like pensions, good salaries, limited working hours.
Teachers no longer have the luxury of closing their classroom doors to shut out the world outside the classroom. The witch hunt against teachers shows that it’s no longer enough to love kids or your subject to be seen as a good teacher — or to be one.
Lois Weiner teaches education at New Jersey City University and is a member of the New Politics editorial board. She is co-editor with Mary Compton of The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and Their Unions: Stories for Resistance and author of a forthcoming book about coupling the power of teacher unions to the passion for teaching.